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Lessons on Two More R's: Right and Wrong

IT might seem that Brent Noyes is facing an uphill fight here at Lincoln Elementary School. His sixth-grade class packs 33 children into a room that should comfortably hold 25. It's the end of a long day. It's warm, so the windows and doors are open to noise echoing through cemented courtyards. And what's this hour's subject? Values, ethics, and character education. It's a combination that might sink another teacher. Yet these kids plainly love it. The discussion centers on government. What is a citizen? Hands shoot up. What responsibilities do citizens have? More hands. Are homeless people citizens? Do we have any responsibility for the homeless?

Mr. Noyes, a youthful-looking 15-year veteran of his profession, prods, encourages, listens. But he doesn't treat every answer equally. He's teaching ``responsibility skills'' - like being a listener, being prepared, being confident, being a risk taker. There's nothing neutral in his values: He's clear that some things are right and some are wrong, and he's happy to impart that knowledge.

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In a society slowly unraveling the snarls wrought by two decades of ``values-neutral'' educational theories - where teachers, avoiding all moral judgments, treat each set of values their students come up with as equally valid - Noyes is in a vanguard. He makes no bones about it: He's teaching values, working with a character-education curriculum developed by the Thomas Jefferson Center (TJC) in nearby Pasadena, Calif. ``We do it almost every day,'' he says, and kids think of it ``more as a privilege than a punishment.''

In his Pasadena office, TJC vice president Patrick McCarthy explains why. In recent decades, he says, ``the schools have lost their moral underpinnings.'' Rather than teaching basic values, educators have tended to focus on symptoms of lost values - drugs, teenage pregnancy, dropouts, crime, violence, and a host of others. But increasingly, he says, the schools are ``crying uncle.'' Why? Because the challenges of modern society prove that ``you can't be values-neutral.''

Now, 27 years after its founding as a nonsectarian institution dedicated to character education, the TJC is coming of age. Last year, says president B. David Brooks, was ``the year that the systematic teaching of values and personal responsibility became acceptable again.'' His sales reflect the trend: More than 2,000 schools have used TJC's curricular materials, in 34,000 classrooms reaching more than 1 million students.

But is there any proof that it works? A tough question, Mr. McCarthy agrees. Nevertheless, he's happy to call attention to San Marcos Junior High School in northern California. After placing heavy emphasis on character and discipline for three years, the school saw drug incidents fall from 12 to one per year, dropouts decline from more than 10 percent to less than 2 percent, the number of straight-A students double, and pregnancies among high-school girls fall from 147 to 19.

There may, of course, be other factors behind those figures. Back at Lincoln Elementary, Noyes looks for more anecdotal evidence. In the five years his school has been working closely on character education, he says the whole ``pulse of the school'' has improved. Lack of discipline is less troublesome. Parents are ``almost 100 percent'' behind the program. What's more, ``there's only one kid I know of who's gone to jail.''

These days, that's an impressive statement - the kind that parents, teachers, and school boards need to hear more of. The lesson is surprisingly clear. America's kids are not a lost generation. They're not moral idiots. They're simply waiting to be taught the handful of simple, obvious values upon which their success - and the future of the nation - will rest. They're waiting for character education.

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